I had an incredible experience at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival and watched a total of nine sessions. Since I’ve been unable to jot down my thoughts until now, I’ve decided to focus on the sessions which I got the most out of, otherwise this post would be ridiculously long. Have you read any of these books? Tell me in the comments which one I should read after I finish Eggshell Skull.
On Writing: Eggshell Skull
Bri Lee in conversation with editor Kate Goldsworthy and publisher Jane Palfreyman
Bri Lee’s debut memoir is one I’ve been meaning to read since its release. Eggshell Skull has received a lot of praise and I’ve seen it recommended by many other bloggers I trust. This session was focused on crafting the book, featuring Lee in conversation with her editor and publisher. One of the most fascinating things I learnt during the talk was that the book didn’t require structural edits, which is astonishing.
Lee talked through the process of writing, which was helped largely by notes and diary entries made during her year as a District Court Judge’s associate. The observations from these trials are interwoven with Lee’s own sexual assault case and personal reflections of the justice system. After multiple delays in Lee’s trial, she ended up having just two weeks to finish the final two chapters of the manuscript. Lee explained that the close timing was in some ways preferable because it allowed her to write about it without overthinking or reflecting too much on the trauma.
I loved listening to Lee talk about her enjoyment of the editing process, something I totally understand. Lee joked that she was waiting for more changes to be made, but her editor said there really was no need because the writing was so clean. One of the major things which was addressed during editing was actually to do with body image, as the book does deal with Lee’s own disordered eating. While that wasn’t removed, editor raised some concerns about other language used in observing others which really came from Lee’s own body image issues.
Another interesting discussion in the session was about the legalities of writing a book like Eggshell Skull which in many ways condemns the justice system. Lee said some of the initial criticism was about her inexperience in the legal sector, to which her response was: isn’t it sad that it only took me a year to have enough material for a book? Which is of course the most damning indictment on this system.
Get your own copy of Eggshell Skull
Irish Crime and Australian Crime
Dervla McTiernan and Janet Lee in conversation with Kay Saunders
Janet Lee was in the middle of writing her thesis when she learned of Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in Australia. This character just kept nagging at her, and as soon as her thesis was finished Lee started researching the story which would form her debut historical fiction, The Killing of Louisa. Lee said a similar thing had happened with the story which will probably become her new writing project, it’s a character which is persistently in her mind and begs for more attention.
Louisa Collins was tried four times for the alleged murders of her husbands in the late 1880s. Part of the conversation focused on Victorian society and the reasons why Collins was suspected of the murders. Lee explained that in this society, women were marked by their religion, relationship, income and social standing. During her research, Lee went to the former Darlinghurst Jail in Sydney and Susannah Place Museum in The Rocks (which I’ve also been to and is an incredibly moving experience). It helped to contextualise the story and Collins’ life. However, Lee explains the woman she wrote about wasn’t the real Collins, it was a scaffold around which she formed a character.
For Dervla McTiernan, whose police procedural is set in rural Ireland, the novel also started with a character. She explained she had the image of a girl, Maud, and her brother sitting on the stairs of a house scared out of their minds as the dead body of their mother lay upstairs. Maud’s disappearance is the case at the centre of the novel, set some years after the original crime. McTiernan said she felt compelled to write the novel because she had to get answers to why this character was in such a state.
The Rúin is focused on detective Cormac Reilly and his move from Dublin to County Galway. But unlike most police procedurals, he doesn’t have a ‘sidekick’ where plot twists and information can be revealed through dialogue. Although not having a sidekick did make McTiernan’s job more difficult in writing, making him an outsider in the rural county also allowed a fresh perspective. She also explained that the social history of Ireland had influenced her writing just as it had her own life (which is something I’m particularly interested in, and a reason I’m drawn to Irish fiction).
Future is Female: Woman in Public Life
Kate Grenville and Katherena Vermette in conversation with Susan Harris Rimmer
I hadn’t initially planned to go to this session, but my mum and I decided to check it out when Lauren Chater was stuck in Sydney and her talk on The Lace Weaver was cancelled. I was fascinated to hear about Katherena Vermette’s work as a First Nations Canadian writer and political activist. Her novel, The Break, sounds fascinating and is blurbed by Margaret Atwood which obviously suggests the extraordinary calibre of her work. During the conversation Vermette discussed the Canadian government’s relationship with the country’s First Nations people, themes which are explored in her novel. Kate Grenville described it as a privilege to be educated by The Break, saying white people needed to be able to sit with the difficulties in the truth of colonisation: “telling the stories is the absolute ground zero from which we can move forward”.
Grenville spoke about the biography she wrote about her mother, One Life. She said the reaction of most women when they learned about the book was to also tell the extraordinary lives of their mothers. However, most men immediately questioned whether she was famous. I found that nugget so fascinating and so true: most women lead the most incredible lives, but just become known as ‘wife’ or ‘mother’. Not that either of those things is bad, in fact motherhood is an incredibly important job, but it is amazing to think how many seemingly ordinary women have stories of extraordinary lives which are forgotten.
I’ve not yet read Small Spaces, but it’s another book I’ve seen recommended by so many people I trust and after this session I’m sure I’ll be reading it soon. In this YA thriller Tash Carmody faces the return of an ‘imaginary friend’ she hasn’t seen since a childhood trauma. It was this dynamic, of a past trauma resurfacing, that Sarah Epstein wanted to explore in her novel. In writing the novel Epstein combined a few forms of storytelling, with flashbacks told through third person narrative elements (like transcripts and news articles) so the reader could somewhat make up their own mind about the truth of the story and Tash’s reliability.
Epstein said she was a ‘messy’ writer, piecing the story together in a non-linear style and often writing at night between 9pm and 2am. Her writing style is cinematic, with lots of visualisation (which I always thinks works really well for thrillers). The ending was the most difficult element to write, because it had to satisfy so many things, follow up with all the things which have been set up throughout the rest of the novel. But, the climax is one of the first things Epstein writes. She also explained that writing sprints help keep her on track.
Epstein is working on two new novels, but isn’t sure which is published. She did confess to a love for standalone stories though and said the conclusion of Small Spaces was a satisfying place to leave the story and the characters. I found it really interesting to learn Epstein was first trying to be published in the US, but felt like she had no chance because she was just a drop in the ocean. However, advice from US publishers about needing a ‘hook’ in her rejected manuscripts was the reason she started writing psychological thrillers. Epstein said in contrast to US, the #LoveOzYA community has felt like a supportive family.
Buy Small Spaces
Second Sight/The Long Drop
This was my favourite session from the festival, if only because it started with two brilliant readings which convinced me I would absolutely be reading these books. Aoife Clifford’s in particular was so genius the whole room, including the panelists, gasped when she finished. The reaction was amazing. Then Denise Mina read from her first true crime novel, and I knew I had a new writing idol alongside Helen Garner and Michelle McNamara.
Mina’s book, The Long Drop, is a semi-fictionalised account of Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel. The spark for the novel was a drunken night between Manual and the husband of one of his victims, plus a history of rumours around Glasgow that he may have been wrongly accused. Much of Glasgow’s social history is packed into the book, which I loved getting a taste of during this session.
Clifford explained she didn’t want to write a typical crime novel, so chose to make her protagonist a lawyer. This character grew from Clifford’s reflections about what it would be like to be a policeman’s daughter, and also fed into the narrative. She also wanted to explore the idea that becoming a partner in a law firm wasn’t the career pinnacle it seemed.
I didn’t take too many more notes – including Mina’s answer to my question about research because I was listening too intently! However, both did discuss how hard it was to write the revelation in a mystery and avoid falling into the ‘Agatha Christie trap’ where everyone is gathered around for the big reveal.
Look, I love a cult and although I resisted buying a copy of Beautiful Revolutionary it’s only a matter of time before I grab a copy because this session sold me. Originally this story, about Jim Jones’ mistress Evelyn Lynden was meant to be part of The Love of a Bad Man, but Laura Elizabeth Woollett said it proved to complex to be summed up in a short story.
As part of her research Woollett made contact with Evelyn’s family and eventually with survivors of Jonestown, visiting them in the US and going to the site of the massacre. I was fascinated to hear about the research process and to hear Woollett worked so closely with the survivors. She said their openness and willingness to be involved was unexpected, but something she is very grateful for. They’ve all read the book, which is fictionalised, and appreciate it.
Much of the discussion in this session centred on the cult itself, which was fascinating. Woollett said there was a myth people were “won over” by Jim Jones, but lots of people only tolerated him and were part of the community for other reasons. When discussing Jones, Woollett said what kept people captivated was his attractive ideals despite his complete narcissism. Jones was actually an atheist but used religion to entice people to socialist ideas.
Affiliate links throughout. I attended these sessions as a guest of Brisbane Writer’s Festival.